The Battle of Turkey Thicket, By Christopher Russell: Book Review

philip hughes grave
This is the gravestone that marks the resting place of Philip Hughes in Arlington National Cemetery

On June 27, 1950 Harry Truman ordered American forces into South Korea. The purpose of this action was to help repel North Korean troops that had crossed the 38th Parallel. It would be two and half months before significant reinforcements would be sent to buttress the small American contingent. By the time these fresh recruits arrived, the hero of this book, Private Philip Thomas Hughes of the 19th Infantry, 24th Infantry Division, had fallen. His demise came just three days before the U. N. intervention and a mere twelve days after his eighteenth birthday. The Battle of Turkey Thicket, by Christopher Russell, offers insight into the chaotic early days of the Korean War and provides an explanation for how young Philip Hughes found himself at the front line in a war for which he, and the United States, were poorly prepared

In writing this book, Russell has done a service to every soldier who ever fought in war. The details of Philip Hughes’ life are often murky. This was a boy who was not born to advantage. He was orphaned as an infant and sent to live in an institution. At the age of two, he was adopted. From the account of this book, it seems that the circumstances in that adoptive home were not conducive to a happy childhood.

Philip, and his brother, Frank, ran away in 1949, when they were teenagers.   After that, neither boy was welcome back home. They ended up in a reformatory, though they had not committed a serious offense. Their mother simply found them to be unmanageable, so she turned them over to the state. Under the circumstances, the military seemed like a reasonable option to Philip. The country was not at war, he would have the opportunity to travel, and he would receive training. His mother did not object.

Philip was sent overseas, to Japan, where U. S. Occupation forces were supervising Japan’s post-WWII transition. It was while he was in Japan that the North Korean incursion occurred. Philip and other soldiers stationed in Japan were sent into combat. These soldiers were not seasoned fighters. Battlefield equipment was left over from WWII and it was not in great shape. Supply transport for the soldiers in the field was haphazard. The troops were cold, hungry and sometimes actually lost in the rough South Korean terrain. Clean water was in short supply, sanitation was “abysmal” and medical care was substandard. According to Christopher Russell, “During the first year of the Korean War, 60 percent of U. S. troop evacuations were disease related.”

Russell has ably managed a difficult task in writing this book. He has researched the scant details of Philip Hughes life and has noted when sections of the book are not supported by the record. Much of the narrative is derived from extrapolation or third person accounts. Russell does not blur the line between what he knows for certain and what is likely to have happened. As a result, the reader is grateful that the story as told can be relied upon.  Still…there is a desire to know more about the young soldier. To Russell’s credit, he does not give in to the temptation to fill in the blanks with a faux account.

I wish everyone would read this book. The Korean War is largely forgotten in the United States, although Korea is much in the news these days. Millions of civilians were killed or wounded during the war.  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers fell in battle.  Approximately 36,700 of the fallen were American.  And yet, the fallen, to many Americans, are a minor footnote to history. Christopher Russell’s book reminds us that the lives of the fallen matter, and that their sacrifice should be honored.

The Battle of Turkey Thicket is the story of an orphan, of a soldier, of an American War. I highly recommend this book.

A. G. Moore September 2017

 

 

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War’s Therapeutic History

 

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Florence Nightingale tending the sick and wounded during the Crimean War. Lithograph E. Walker; Day & Son. Located in the Library of Congress. Copyright expired.

By A. G. Moore

It is ironic that throughout history, war has been an effective laboratory for creating advances in medicine. Human beings are the raw material of war. Injured humans, sick humans, cannot carry out the mission of their masters. They cannot win victories if they perish from wounds, or struggle with illness. It is in the interest of nations and the leaders of nations to protect soldiers. And thus, history shows, war has been the environment in which medical innovation and discovery has often occurred.

Of course, there have been idealists who labored, in war and peace, to improve medical care. No slight is here intended to these heroes. I am in awe of often unacknowledged and anonymous benefactors who give their lives to save the lives of others. But even in these instances, it has often been the case  that the work of the idealist is sponsored and supported by a less altruistic actor.

For example, Florence Nightingale traveled to the Crimea in the midst of a terrible war because she wanted to save lives. No one has ever been able to impugn the motives of this great nurse and medical innovator. Her actions saved not only British soldiers but countless soldiers of all nationalities who fought in successive wars.

As is typical of medical innovation prompted by warfare, Florence Nightingale’s insight and reforms also extended to civilian populations. She began a revolution in sanitation and nursing that has benefited every generation, civilian and military, across the world.

Not only did Florence Nightingale improve nursing and hospital practices, she also inspired a transformation in battlefield ethics. Because of her example and advice, the concept of neutrality for professional medical personnel evolved as a modern concept in warfare. The Geneva Conventions, which cemented this concept in international law, were a legacy of Florence Nightingale’s influence.

However, without the Crimean War, and without the English Crown’s need for healthy soldiers to carry on in battle, Florence Nightingale might never have gone to the Crimea. The English Crown was in crisis because of the appalling number of deaths suffered by its soldiers in the Crimea. This crisis threatened to deny the English a victory in the Crimean War.

Florence Nightingale became an angel to suffering soldiers in the Crimea and a savior to the English war effort. She became a popular figure to families in Britain whose loved ones were saved and she became a national hero because of her contribution to the war effort. Queen Victoria personally awarded Florence a unique medal, The Nightingale Jewel, in commemoration of her extraordinary service.

Medical innovation in wartime did not not begin or end with Florence Nightingale. In the ancient world, Greek, Egyptian and Indian doctors traveled to battlefields to treat the wounded. Improved surgical techniques were the result.

In more modern times, Jonas Salk worked on an influenza vaccine at the behest of the US government during WWII. It was the successful development of a flu vaccine that helped Salk to understand the direction to take in his research on a polio vaccine.

The carnage of war throughout history has been a prompt for development of therapeutic medicine. This is an opportunistic result: the attention and energies of great powers focus on medical care at these critical junctures because of battlefield imperatives. A true advance would be for state leaders to see the urgency of focusing on medical care in peacetime, when the needs of civilian populations are front and center. This would represent not only a revolution in medical science but also a essential evolution in the human condition.